Oakland Raiders Week 4 : Pressures, Hurries, and Knockdowns
Good day folks, and welcome to Pressures, Hurries, and Knockdowns, week four edition.
I apologize for a lack of post-game analysis after the Cardinals game; on Sunday evening, perhaps not by coincidence after Seabass' choke-job, I fell rather ill and am just now feeling better.
That was one of the tougher losses to swallow in recent memory, and I'm just now accepting the fact that we're 1-2 and not 2-1.
After the euphoria of Bruce Gradkowski's injection into the lineup during the Rams game faded to normalcy, we were left to see that the team, though improved on both sides of the ball, still have a lot of work to do to show the improvement we all hoped for and expected this season.
With that in mind, let's get to the PHK for week four.
Pressures : Coach Tom Cable
What would PHK be without good 'ol Coach Cable to kick things off? Only this time, things have changed a little.
He's out of ideas now. Bruce Gradkowski was his one ace in the hole if things weren't going well for him this season, and he played his wild card at the earliest possible juncture.
He constructed a monstrosity of mismatched and untalented players on the offensive line, which he is now beginning to try and remedy. His desperate cobbling together of parts along the line is actually paying off, as despite being porous in pass protection they've been quite good in the run blocking game.
His company line of discipline, accountability, and a winning culture bought him some time as the head man, but going to Gradkowski so early was a sign of desperation for a man who knows his status.
Add in the constant tinkering with and absolution of the offensive line as a continuation of that desperation, and he's ducked and dodged his potential firing admirably for some time now through mostly smoke and mirrors.
But now, there are no more band-aids or quick fixes for him to whip out to save his job. There is no other man behind the curtain.
For once, he's going to have to actually produce a viable football team on the field, and not just in words, t-shirt slogans or media sound bites. I like Cable's effusive positivity and all, but when the results aren't following the words the words not only ring hollow, they become comically upsetting.
Cable doesn't have the pedigree or the X's and O's background to simply talk about the ability to motivate these players and get them to play hard, disciplined football week in and week out. It has to happen.
Tom Cable is under pressure for the rest of his Raider career to actually get the players in his locker room fired up to play football. He's under pressure to get this team to produce the results on the field that he continually talks up in the media.
In short, he's under pressure to produce some positive results instead of just talking about them.
Pressures : Bruce Gradkowski
I was on board with Jason Campbell coming to the Raiders. Very excited to have him, actually. Very excited we still have him.
But in the Rams game, and going into this game, I wanted Bruce. It was the fire and energy he brought more than anything that I thought had him ahead of Campbell at this point as the man that could lead the team.
We tend to forget, in the euphoria of positivity, that reality is creeping behind the corner. We tend to slough it off until necessary to address.
That euphoria can lead to overblown emotional reactions, such as the anointing of Gradkowski as the Raiders saviour, a mantle Jason Campbell held for all of six quarters this season.
In reality, when he started against Arizona, we saw what we've come to expect from Bruce. The ability to make plays happen when the protection breaks down; the ability to lead the team into scoring position; the ability to get the players on the field to follow his leadership.
We also saw his inconsistency, his inability to lead the team to touchdowns in the red zone, and his competitive spirit causing him to make a mental error on the goal line that greatly contributed to this loss for this team.
The state of the Raiders makes it so that, quite frankly, a two-point win over a poor Rams team when struggling to finish doesn't buy you much good will going forward if you can't beat the Arizona Cardinals.
Bruce Gradkowski is under pressure to show that he is a player who can make good decisions more often than he does; that he can stop throwing blind passes into heavy coverage; that he can actually produce points in the red zone; and that his fire and passion can come on as strongly as a starter as it does as a sparkplug in relief.
Jason Campbell is still a very talented quarterback, is still learning the offense, and is still on this team. And Tom Cable still doesn't have much job security.
Pressures : Red Zone Play
If I told you there were four teams in the NFL ranked in the top ten in both total offense and total defense, would you guess the Oakland Raiders are one of them?
Probably not; but there they are, ranked tenth overall in team offense, and tied for second overall in team defense.
The defensive ranking is kind of skewed, as it has been in past years, due to the fact that teams haven't thrown on us much this season. But still, there is no doubt that by the numbers, this team is vastly improved over last season.
That improvement is most evident on offense, with current numbers being light-years ahead of what this team has regularly produced since 2002. We've improved; really we have.
Yet here we sit, at 1-2, with only a win over the Rams to claim to our name. How is it that a team producing at a top ten level on offense, and holding it down on defense as well, loses to the Arizona Cardinals? Beats the Rams by only two points? How? I'll tell you how.
The Raiders are a great team this year; between the 20's. Look no further than the red zone at either end to explain why the team's overall rankings don't mesh with the record or the scoreboard.
The Raiders are averaging over 345 yards a game, ranked 10th in the league. Yet they are only averaging 17.3 points per game, good for 22nd overall. What is worse is that the Raiders have only scored four total touchdowns all season, which is a putrid 29th overall. This is a huge schism that is a direct result of failing in the red zone.
The Raiders have been in the red zone 12 times this season (interestingly enough, four times in each game thus far). They have scored points on nine of the 12 possessions; but only three touchdowns.
That's a 25% success rate for those of you keeping score at home. That's not going to get it done.
This means the Raiders settle for field goals three times as often as they score points in the red zone, which for a team that struggles to score is unacceptable. With Seabass kicking the way he is, it's nerve-wracking as well.
Two of the three touchdowns have come on McFadden runs to the outside (one was a pass, but it was still bounced outside). Zach Miller was supposed to be a point of emphasis in the red zone this season, yet has barely been targeted. This team is not using it's biggest strengths in close, which are to get McFadden in space and to look for Zach Miller. Simple yes, but not being executed.
Conversely, one thing the Raiders have actually been good at in recent years is stopping teams in the red zone. But this season, the Raiders are giving up over 80% completion to quarterbacks in the red zone, and have allowed touchdowns on 80% of their opponents red zone possessions.
Opponents have rushed for a full two more yards per carry in the red zone than the Raiders have, as well as thrown for nearly four more yards per attempt, with a much higher success rate.
Raiders opponents are being matched or even outplayed between the 20's, but in the red zone, the opponents are taking it to the Raiders, showing more efficiency as well as aggressiveness.
One look at this discrepancy tells you more than a Janikowski missed field goal does about the Raiders struggles this season.
Pressures : Rushing Defense
This season, the Raiders have showed a lot of promise stopping the run. With improved gap discipline, not over pursuing the ball as much, being stronger at the point of attack, and getting off blocks better, the Raiders are playing the run better more consistently.
The Raiders ability to maintain this fundamental discipline is essential, as they are playing a Texans team that is ranked in the top ten in both rushing and passing offense and fourth overall.
Arian Foster has shown this season that he is complete threat as a running back. He can run tough between the tackles, being 6-1 and 227 pounds; he can bounce it outside, as evidenced in his week one evisceration of the Colts' edges; and he can take it to the house, once again evidenced in his trotting all over the Colts for multiple big gains.
With Duane Brown still suspended, Foster struggled off-tackle last week more so than he had the first two weeks, and his replacement, Rashad Butler, was abused in the pass rush game by DeMarcus Ware last weekend. So that works to the Raiders advantage.
However, the Raiders are potentially thin on the interior D line this weekend. "Big" John Henderson's foot is still bothering him, and Richard Seymour's hamstring is still being problematic. No word as of right now as to whether they may go this weekend, but if they don't, that leaves a thin rotation of Jay Alford, Desmond Bryant, and Tommy Kelly as the only true DTs on the roster.
This is a potentially disastrous omen, as if you'll remember one of the keys of the ZBS that Houston employs is that it wears the defense down over the course of the game, and the biggest chunks of yardage are ideally gained at the end of the game, when the defense is fatigued.
The run defense is under pressure to contain Foster and force quarterback Matt Schaub into throwing the ball more than he'd like. Although Schaub is one of the league's better QBs, the Raiders have thus far shown they can play the pass fairly well. As always, it's the run defense that is the major concern.
Pressures : Defensive Coordinator John Marshall
Time to get that 'ol jar down again, John. Mr. Davis took your boys back and placed them high on the shelf last weekend.
How else to explain NO pressure being put on a QB in Derek Anderson that crumbles faster than a fig newton when faced with a pass rush?
This defense has speed, strength, and aggressiveness. Unfortunately, you wouldn't know it much of the time as they stay in a single-high safety, man-to-man matchup scheme that was extremely efficient and effective years ago.
However, when this team lets the dogs loose, as they did at times against the Rams and all preseason, havoc is wrought all over the field. I'm not saying to blitz a ton; just sometimes, and effectively.
This team also needs to get more creative in the coverage game. Nnamdi Asomugha can lock down any receiver; but Kevin Walter and Owen Daniels can hurt the Raiders if Asomugha is shadowing Andre Johnson.
So don't always stick to man coverage; mix things up with some zone, some cover two, some zone blitzing even. Anything to show a different wrinkle to an offense that can and will shred conventional defenses.
So mix up pass coverages, rush more than four men, bring some heat! We have the horses.
Kamerion Wimbley has shown the pass rushing acumen that made him a future superstar during his rookie season in Cleveland.
When there's more than a four man rush, the interior lines of the opposition simply cannot handle Seymour, Lamarr Houston, and Matt Shaughnessy all at once.
Marshall needs to realize that Trevor Scott is most effective as a 3rd down pass rusher and give Shaugnessy more time at end; Shaughnessy has proved to be Scott's equal as a pass rusher, and is more solid defending the run.
John Marshall is under pressure to be more aggressive and use the size, strength, and speed of this defense to his full advantage.
He needs to throw caution to the wind and blitz on occasion, because it's worked quite well so far this year.
He needs to have the stones to allow Nnamdi Asomugha to once again cover the other team's best receiver, Andre Johnson.
Most of all, he needs to start scheming more like he did in Seattle, where they were an aggressive, attacking defense.
This defense has the talent and mettle to maintain their No. 2 overall NFL ranking: but not if they're put back in the jar to sit on the shelf.
- Thinking about Stevie Brown and Javon Walker, who proved this offseason he's still got something left, I couldn't help but think that this organization treats some players in very, very strange and illogical ways
- But I'm happy to say welcome back, Stevie Brown. Just in time to be in the mix for a muffed punt recovery. The kid is always around the ball, and we'd better keep him around this time
- Erik Pears, on the other hand, just needs to go and stay gone
- Daniel Loper gets my vote for early-season under the radar MVP. Our best lineman, Robert Gallery, goes down with a hammy in week one, and Loper comes in and doesn't miss a beat. When Gallery is healthy again, it makes far too much sense to give Loper a chance at right guard in place of the struggling Cooper Carlisle. It makes so much sense, in fact, that I don't expect it to happen
- I admire Bruce's fire and energy, but his belief in himself and his ability to make something happen can cost this team at times. To wit the goalline debacle and numerous passes that glanced off the hands of defenders when there was no play there to be made
- Jason Campbell has got to wonder what the hell happened here. He went from a place, Washington, where he never felt appreciated or wanted to a place, Oakland, where he was immediately appreciated and wanted desperately. Then, after six weeks, he's on the slag heap again. You've gotta feel for the guy
- The struggles of the Raiders in the red zone are nothing new on offense, but allowing pedestrian QBs like Derek Anderson to look like Joe Montana in the red zone is a new and disturbing trend
Knockdowns : Sebastian Janikowski Is a Top-Tier NFL Kicker
This one is going to be unpopular, but it's true. He's never BEEN a top tier NFL kicker. He's never been clutch, and never been propped up as an Adam Vinitieri or Jason Elam even when the Raiders were winning often.
He's always had more leg than any other kicker around, but honestly how often has that benefitted this team?
I love Seabass; we all do. He's the perfect kicker to be a Raider. A renegade out of Florida State that was built like a linebacker and drank like a sailor home from the desert, his rebelliousness and unique talent made him Raider material from day one.
His ability to punch people out as a placekicker didn't hurt, either.
But his persona and overblown reputation have blinded most to the fact that he's simply not very reliable, and he never has been.
Seabass may hold many Raider records and NFL records for distance kicking, such as longest field goal in Raiders history (61 yards), longest field goal to end an overtime game in NFL history (57 yards) and longest field goal attempt in NFL history (76 yards).
But his his inability to consistently make makeable kicks, and the fact that every time there is an important kick I feel sick because I feel like he's not going to make it that find him on this list.
That, and a certain performance last week that has made this fresh and painful.
Knockdowns : Raider Kick Coverage Looking Good
Well it was. Until this game.
Coach Cable's decision to defer the opening kickoff in week two against the Rams paid off, as the Raiders got the ball back at a time they desperately needed to get some offense.
Coach Cable's decision to defer the opening kickoff in week three against the Cardinals did not pay off, as LaRod Stephens-Howling howled his way to a 102-yard opening touchdown that set the Raiders back immediately.
Although impressive in the way the team responded, the kick return once again hilighted some major issues in kick coverage.
Mike Mitchell had Stephens-Howling, and just missed him. Nobody else had a chance and the Raiders, who gave up two separate touchdown returns in the preseason, looked vulnerable in the return game once again.
Although the Cardinals didn't get any more big yards the rest of the day, it's clear that kick coverage is something that the Raiders still need work on. Isaiah Ekejiuba may not have been a starting linebacker, but he was a Pro Bowl special teams player, and we're missing him.
Along the same lines, the San Diego Chargers are experiencing that life without Pro Bowl special teamer Kasim Osgood isn't the same either, as they've allowed a whopping three TD returns in three games.
With Dexter McCluster and Javier Arenas playing for the Kansas City Chiefs, this division needs to shore up the coverage and fast.
Knockdowns : The Offensive Line Is Terrible
I'm going to get taken to task a bit for this one, and rightfully so. So let me put in a disclaimer: this is in reference to the job the offensive line has done in run blocking only.
They are still terrible at pass blocking, of that there is no doubt.
But Raider fans, myself included, have lamented the horrid nature of this line all season. They're terrible, we say. It's their fault we're struggling, we say. No talent hacks who don't know football, we say.
And we're right, a lot of the time.
But think on this: Darren McFadden is the third leading rusher in the NFL. The third leading rusher! And although he's carried the ball quite a few times, he has an average of 4.9 yards per carry, which is absolutely outstanding, and a credit (yes a credit!) to the offensive line in front of him.
In fact, the Raiders are 10th overall in run blocking in the entire NFL; it's the lack of touchdowns and big plays busted by the backs that hold that ranking back from being even higher.
The team has given up the 5th most sacks in the NFL, but are only 13th in QB hits. Now once again I acknowledge that's awful and needs to get better. But's it's not the worst line in the league, believe it or not.
By no means am I saying this line is good; what I am saying is that after piling on so much for three weeks, maybe it's time to reflect that they aren't quite as bad as we think they are.
Well, week four. We should be 2-1, but we're 1-2. It hurts, it sucks, but it's fact.
We can win this game, even though Houston is a great team. We just have to play hard, be smart, make good decisions, and be aggressive.
The biggest factor to this game and the Raiders success will be how much they want this game. Bruce is starting now, so no sparkplug off the bench. Cable and his staff have to get these guys up and ready to play what is a very important game at this early juncture.
For this team to show to everyone that they've improved for real and not just statistically, being 2-2 with a win over an excellent Texans team goes a hell of a lot further than being 1-3 with a loss to a bad Arizona team.
This week should show us the identity of this team for the rest of the season. We've seen two different Oakland Raider teams: the aggressive, attacking team that pounces on the opposition, and the passive, lame duck team that allows themselves to be pounced upon.
The latter has been present far too often the past seven seasons, and for a true breakout to happen, we need the former to show up each and every week. They can; but will they?
Thanks for reading as always folks, and please remember, all questions and comments, whether good, bad or ugly are always welcome!!